Having been part of MTC’s NEON Festival in 2014, performance artist Nicola Gunn’s latest project Working with Children has been commissioned as part of the company’s NEON NEXT initiative. It’s wonderful to see the MTC supporting artists in the development of new works and this particular piece is a bold choice to nurture.
Definitely more ‘performance art’ than standard narrative or storytelling theatre, for while it has a theme and a form of structure that is somewhat theatrical it has no truly defined story to tell, rather a subject and related elements for the audience to muse upon and develop their own interpretation.
Gunn commences the performance by entering the space in a latex bodysuit before proceeding to coat herself in a clear lubricant and then to pour a bucket of water across the width of the stage. In darkness she then turns the space into a makeshift Slip’n’Slide, running and skidding across the stage, only preventing herself from a complete slippery disaster by wearing chunky treaded boots.
It’s a cheeky juxtaposition of childish play with sexualised materials, and is an apt introduction to a project focused on issues of Working with Children. Once re-attired in jeans and a T-shirt, Gunn then begins a monologue that is essentially a series of musings loosely tied together by an anecdote about a piece of children’s theatre that involved the kids interviewing adults about sex in a sort of television talk show format. In the story, an adult man directs the children, while a woman observes the production process. When the woman shares, after a number of hours, that the production is boring to her – she has already confided to the audience that the kids aren’t asking interesting questions in her opinion – she is asked by the director to remove herself, to protect the children from some perceived moral harm.
While sharing this tale, Gunn performs a repetitive set of physical moves across the stage, stretching and balancing, rolling and kneeling across the precariously slippery floor. She breaks the story into pieces, interspersing it with cogitations on unicorns, Paris Syndrome, and Michael Parkinson’s obsession with Helen Mirren’s breasts in interviews. Eventually all these things start to blend and meld, at first creating wonderful observations and then complete nonsense.
A terrific score by Kelly Ryall drives the pace of the production excitedly. Bosco Shaw adds some psychedelic lighting to bring things to a head, while the stage is simply set with a translucent curtain backdrop onto which shapes are projected that reference the subject and tempo of Gunn’s monologue, co-created by Shaw and Nick Roux. Eugyeene Teh provides costume design and collaborates on set realisation. But the driving force behind this production is clearly Gunn who brings the production to a close through the construction of an elaborate series of contemporary art pieces, all reflective of tales told throughout the course the production. Finally, she invites the audience to stay and observe the art for as long as they would like.
Having provided that description, there’s probably no real need to add that this is an unusual piece of theatre. Those who are already aware of Gunn’s numerous other works will be more than aware of her contemporary style and will doubtless find much to enjoy here. If you’re not already familiar, then be warned that this is not your standard theatre production. Approach this performance as art rather than narrative and you’ll be well placed to appreciate what Gunn has to offer.